Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Makers: Women in Business (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS broadcast Makers: Women in America, a segment on “Women in Business,” and while it suffered (as did the only other episode in the series I’ve seen, “Women in Comedy”) from a bad case of first-itis — I’ve never forgotten Katharine Hepburn’s complaint to Garson Kanin about “the women’s liberation movement — I’m for it, of course; I just wish they didn’t come off like they started it all!,” and the Makers series suggests that there weren’t powerful, assertive women anywhere in the working world until the 1960’s. Not true, though given that I’m much more interested in popular culture than the business world I don’t have the names of powerful women pre-1960’s who were material successes in business (aside from a handful of people like Hetty Green, who made it into the popular culture mainly because she was famously miserly and a biographer wrote a book called The Day They Shook the Plum Tree about how her heirs, who were anything but miserly, ran through the fortune she had carefully and painstakingly assembled). The story started with one of my personal heroines, advertising executive and agency owner Mary Wells — despite the Mad Men stereotype advertising, according to this program, was actually more women-friendly than most businesses in the 1950’s because a large part of their task was figuring out how to sell products to women, and the males who ran the top agencies realized that it might actually help them do that if they had a few women in their own ranks — and runs through a bevy of powerful women who fought hard to get themselves into the all-male club most of the business world was then. Perhaps the most inspiring story on the show was that of Muriel Siebert, who fought an eight-year legal battle for the right to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (and incidentally ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat, losing the GOP primary to another woman, Assemblymember Florence Sullivan, who lost to Moynihan in the general), though some of the people profiled were creepier: among them were Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, both of whom were also failed Republican candidates for public office (and I found it astonishing that Fiorina was here lionized as the pioneering woman CEO of Hewlett-Packard — not mentioning that she ran the company into the ground and the current board has tabbed Meg Whitman to be the corporate savior!) and ending with Sheryl Sandberg, second-in-command to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and author of a controversial book called Lean In: Women,Work and the Will to Lead, which has been attacked by old-line feminists basically for saying that the corporate world is what it is and women need to learn to be successful in it on its terms instead of trying to remake it.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Boston Strangler (20th Century-Fox, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Boston Strangler, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1968 and dealing with the (alleged) real-life crimes of Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), who supposedly knocked off 13 women in Boston and surrounding communities between 1962 and 1964 (Edward Anhalt’s screenplay artfully used real-life events, starting with the honorary parade for the Mercury astronauts through the Boston streets and ending, naturally enough, with the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath). The opening credits state that the film is based on fact, and it’s true that virtually all its characters actually existed, but the focus is less on the Strangler and more on John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda, whom the makeup department tried to make look mousy with a pair of bad glasses and a silly moustache), a law professor and consultant to Massachusetts District Attorney Edward W. Brooke (William Marshall, a first-rate African-American actor with a Shakespearean rep whose most famous film credit, alas, is in the lead of the American-International Blaxploitation vampire film Blacula) who’s appointed by Brooke to head a statewide task force to hunt down the mysterious Strangler and arrest him without having to deal with the jurisdictional snarls between city police departments that are hindering the local investigations. For the first half of the movie the Strangler barely appears as a character — just a shadowy presence lurking outside apartment buildings and in their hallways after he’s buzzed in by credulous tenants who believe his story that he’s been sent by their landlords to make preventive repairs (Charles said a would-be serial killer couldn’t use that M.O. today because no renter would believe a landlord was actually going to the expense of sending someone to fix something that wasn’t yet broken!) and he does away with them in a quirky way that involves doing violence to their bodies but without sexually penetrating them. The Boston Strangler was one of Tony Curtis’ periodic attempts to convince the world that he was an actor and not just a faded teen idol — oddly, he did better in that regard in the much less well known Lepke four years later, in which he played a killer but a rational gangster who murdered as part of his business model instead of a psycho, not only because it was a more believable true-life crime story but because he was on screen a lot more — and I was also interested in it because (more or less) sexually related murders were a relatively novel topic on screen then and I wanted to compare it to the way such crimes are depicted on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and other modern-day TV shows and films that aren’t under the same old-line Hollywood constraints that still obtained in 1968. (Like another 20th Century-Fox production, Valley of the Dolls, which also made a big to-do about presenting situations and characters that hadn’t been permitted on screen before, The Boston Strangler was made on the cusp between the death of the old Production Code and the institution of the rating system which replaced it.)

My first intimation that I wasn’t going to like this movie as much as I thought I would when I got out the DVD was the version of the 20th Century-Fox logo on the front of it — the color version; my heart sank when I realized a story that virtually demanded the stark black-and-white atmospherics of classic noir (though director of photography Richard Kline did his best to get some noir compositions even stuck with color, CinemaScope and the briefly fashionable multiple-screen effect — more on that later) was going to be shot in the glowing hues of Fox’s in-house process, DeLuxe. (Conrad Hall, who won an Academy Award for a Fox film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a year later, recalled continually trying to tone down the color for an old-fashioned visual effect — and being frustrated by the technicians at DeLuxe brightening it up again.) What’s more, Kline and his director, Richard Fleischer (son of the legendary cartoon producer Max Fleischer and director of a quite good later noir, the original The Narrow Margin from 1952), decided to go whole-hog with the multiple-screen effect then being used by people like John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and Norman Jewison in The Thomas Crown Affair. Instead of showing just one scene at a time, this effect allowed directors to divide the screen into boxes, each showing a piece of action in different settings to indicate that they were occurring at the same time. The nadir of this technique was probably a film I’ve never seen but have heard about, a 1973 drama called Wicked, Wicked, about a young girl being stalked by a crazed killer — she went through her ordinary life on one side of the split screen while, through a process called “Duo-Vision” that was used throughout the film, he stalked and threatened her on the other. Why Fleischer thought he needed to use this technique when conventional cross-cutting would have done just fine to parallel the Strangler’s actions with the lives of his victims, living their ordinary existences with no idea that they’re about to be done in well ahead of schedule, is a mystery — unless he’d seen the box-office figures for The Thomas Crown Affair and figured the technique would be trendy. Fleischer also totally fails to capture the sense of a city under siege, as each new killing (and the publicity surrounding it) ramps up the public fear.

What he and Anhalt did do, surprisingly effectively, was capture the meager state of police knowledge about sex crimes in the 1960’s; Frank McAfee (gravel-voiced Murray Hamilton, the virtual personification of an old-line cop at sea investigating a sort of crime he’d never encountered or even conceived of before) practically says, “Round up all the usual suspects,” as he assumes that this rather kinky set of killings (at least initially targeting older women — though eventually the Strangler’s victim profile ranged all over the map, from teenagers to geriatrics, with little in common other than they were all female) must have been committed by someone with a known perversion: homosexuality (as it was definitely regarded in those days, especially by the sorts of people who became police officers), sadomasochism, self-flagellation (one of the kinkier suspects they drag in is a guy who gets off on women’s handbags and was thrown out of a monastery for being too far into injuring himself — he sleeps on a box spring from which all cloth has been removed, probably the closest he could get to a bed of nails), voyeurism and all sorts of things Fleischer and Anhalt were probably reveling in the prospect of mentioning on screen for the first time. One suspect comes to light when the police encounter a rather aging prostitute who recalls that he couldn’t perform sexually unless he had his arm around her neck and was strangling her — though she quickly adds that she trusted him to let go in time. One of the few genuine bits of pathos in this film comes when the cops crash a Gay bar (albeit a rather understated and decorous one) and interview Terence Huntley (played by Hurd Hatfield, who’d already had his “go” at on-screen decadence 23 years earlier as the lead in MGM’s film of The Picture of Dorian Gray), who quietly tells them he gets a lot of potential blackmailers because he’s “both rich and Gay” — the one time we hear the G-word in a movie in which we’re otherwise referred to mainly as “faggots” and occasionally as “queers.” It seems he’s living in a room he’s rented from a Lesbian couple, though at least in practice both he and one of the women in the couple he rents from are Bisexual, since he said she denounced him to the police as a potential Strangler suspect as a result of a nasty breakup following an affair in which “she played the man’s part, I the woman.” (One wonders what the mechanics of that were[1], and what both police and movie audiences made of it in the 1960’s.) Given how caught up the cops are in the stereotype that the Strangler would be a sexual pervert (and leaving aside the embarrassing question of why a Gay man would become a serial killer of women), it’s genuinely surprising when the real killer, Albert DeSalvo, turns out to be a depressingly normal fellow, with a wife, two kids and an ordinary proletarian job (a house painter, I believe) on which he struggled to make enough money to support his family.

Alas, the second half of the movie — once DeSalvo is identified as the Strangler, arrested (surprisingly easily) and hauled into John Bottomly’s presence for interrogation, the film becomes oppressively boring, just a series of two-shots and shot/reverse-shot close-ups of Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda confronting each other in a stark, featureless white room that looks like nothing one would see in a movie attempting a realistic depiction of police work. Frankly, it looked to me more like one of the torture rooms in which O’Brien interrogated Winston Smith in 1984, crossed with the interior of the Pan Am space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The second half of the film is supposed to be an intense confrontation that includes DeSalvo’s confession to the murders and the revelation that he committed them because he was psychotic and possibly a multiple personality (a disorder the real DeSalvo was never diagnosed with) — though he never comes right out and says he committed them. Eventually the famous attorney F. Lee Bailey took his case and arranged a plea bargain (DeSalvo pled guilty to previous robberies and sexual offenses and was never convicted, or even tried, for the Strangler killings) that prevented DeSalvo from being executed, but he ended up incarcerated for a life sentence in a mental institution instead of a prison. Ironically, though the final credits of this film state DeSalvo was still in custody, he actually escaped in February 1967 with two other inmates and was still at large when the movie was released — though he was later recaptured and in 1973 met his own end when a fellow inmate stabbed him (and, as with DeSalvo’s own case, no one has ever been definitively linked to DeSalvo’s killing; there was a prime suspect but his trial ended in a hung jury and the case remains open). The Boston Strangler is a surprisingly dull movie of a story that should have been a nail-biting thriller and a moral tale about psychopathology, guilt, innocence and the mental state that leads an otherwise ordinary, unassuming person to crime.

Interestingly, though in 2013 DeSalvo’s corpse was exhumed and DNA testing definitively linked him to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan towards the end of the series of “Boston Strangler” killings, but there’s still a revisionist school of thought about the case that DeSalvo didn’t commit all the murders and there may have been several “Boston Stranglers” because of the wide variety of victim profiles and modi operandi. The Boston Strangler is merely a rather dull pair of movies arbitrarily linked — the first one with the elements of a good neo-noir thriller that could have been considerably better if it had been shot in rich, contrasty, chiaroscuro black-and-white and if Fleischer and cinematographer Kline had lost all the multiple-screen box effects (and if Fleischer had brought to it the same sense of pace he’d had 16 years earlier in The Narrow Margin) and the second is a seemingly endless interrogation scene that leads precisely nowhere and, to the extent it’s watchable, it’s only for Henry Fonda’s sincerity shining through despite all the efforts of the makeup and costuming department to turn him into a nerd. It’s also worth watching, kind of, for the reliable George Kennedy as one of the lead detectives on the case and a couple of scenes featuring actors who would become much bigger names later on — Sally Kellerman as a Strangler victim whom he ties up in a classic bondage pose (an message board criticizes Fleischer for making it look like she enjoyed being raped, but perhaps the gimmick was supposed to be that she was an experienced S/M practitioner who thought she was doing a consensual scene and was trapped with a psycho instead) and who actually survives her ordeal and gives the police valuable information, and James Brolin as a cop who’s embarrassed when Bottomly calls in a psychic, Peter Hurkos (George Voskovec) to work on the case who turns out to be wrong about the Strangler’s identity but right when he guesses Brolin was late to a meeting of the Strangler task force because he stopped at his girlfriend’s home and had a sexual quickie with her. “Everybody’s banging everybody. It’s a horny world,” says Captain Willis — an odd line indeed for a movie about a sexually motivated killer!

[1] — Did she use a strap-on? And if so, where did she get it in the 1960’s in legendarily censorious Boston?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Coney Island (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I was in the mood for a big, splashy musical, and I more or less found one in Coney Island, a 1943 vehicle for Betty Grable at 20th Century-Fox, which had the expected virtues — lots of singing and dancing for Grable (the studio had just pulled the celebrated publicity stunt of having her legs insured for $1 million by Lloyd’s of London, and not surprisingly they had her do a lot of performing in short-short outfits to get maximum exposure for those literally million-dollar legs!) and Fox’s usual neon-bright Technicolor — but also a lot of problems. Like Holiday Inn, the classic musical made at Paramount the year before, Coney Island’s plot (the screenwriter was George Seaton, who three years later would write and direct Grable in one of her best films, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim) is an actively unpleasant story of two men playing mean, vicious and stupid tricks on each other in order to get into the pants of the female lead. And whereas at least in Holiday Inn the two men were Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and they got to sing and dance to incredible songs by Irving Berlin (when I watch Holiday Inn I hold my nose through the plot portions and let myself be dazzled by the great stars doing those great songs), in Coney Island neither of Grable’s would-be boyfriends sing or dance. The story begins in Joe Rocco’s (Cesar Romero) club on Coney Island — depicted here essentially as a giant carnival midway (anyone who thinks of Coney Island as primarily a beach town is going to be sorely disappointed — there isn’t a shot of an actual beach, or even a studio simulacrum of one, anywhere in this film!). He’s running a rather tacky show whose only real asset is his girlfriend and female star, Kate Farley (Betty Grable), who’s showcased in a series of typically raucous songs for the period (the film is nominally set in 1900 but many of the songs were from the next two decades after that, and the four new songs by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger are mostly in a similar style).

The club is crashed by Eddie Johnson (George Montgomery, annoying as usual, though at least in this role his character is supposed to be annoying and therefore his nasty streak is rather appropriate), who was once a business partner of Rocco until one night, when they each bet their shares of a traveling circus against each other in a poker game. Rocco presented three aces and won sole ownership of the show, but then Johnson discovered the cards he’d hidden to substitute the aces. Rocco sold the circus he’d won by cheating and used the money to open his Coney Island club, which is frequently visited by a drunken old Irishman, Finnigan (Charles Winninger — a refugee from considerably better musicals — including the 1936 Show Boat and the 1939 Babes in Arms, even though his casting as Mickey Rooney’s father in Babes in Arms makes overacting seem like a genetic trait!), who interrupts whatever other entertainment is going on to lead his fellow patrons in a sing-along of “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” (It was probably Mr. Murphy just before he walked out on her!) Johnson blackmails his way into half-ownership of Rocco’s club after Finnigan is hit in a bar fight and hits his head on the bar rail — he gets Finnigan out of town and convinces Rocco that his punch killed the old guy — then insists on remodeling the show so it will be classier and showcase Kate in a way that will attract upper-class patrons. After this plot point is established the next shot we see is Kate Farley doing a duet on “Pretty Baby” (a song composed by a Black Gay singer-pianist named Tony Jackson, whom Jelly Roll Morton remembered from their days in New Orleans) with a singing, dancing horse (actually two people in a singularly obvious “horse” costume), and while the scene is entertaining (and “Pretty Baby” is by far the best song in the film, new or old!) it hardly seems to represent the step up in Kate’s career George Seaton’s script tells us it is.

Johnson wants to take Kate out of Rocco’s club into a new one he’s building on Coney Island — of course he also wants to take Kate out of Rocco’s arms into his! — and Rocco tries to forestall this by bringing Broadway producer Bill Hammerstein (Matt Briggs) to the club to discover Kate and sign her for one of his shows. (Bill Hammerstein really existed; he was the son of Oscar Hammerstein I and the father of Oscar Hammerstein II — yes, Oscar Hammerstein II was actually the grandson, not the son, of I — and the real Hammerstein II would write a series of successful musicals, and of the seven shows he wrote with Richard Rodgers that were filmed, six of them were made at 20th Century-Fox.) Only Johnson gets wind of Hammerstein’s impending arrival and takes Kate for a walk on Coney Island so she’ll miss the show Hammerstein is scouting and her far less talented comic-relief sidekick Dolly (Phyllis Kennedy) will go on in her place. Of course, Hammerstein discovers her anyway — she goes to his Victoria Theatre to audition and Johnson substitutes himself for Hammerstein’s audition pianist, though for once he behaves like a nice guy and doesn’t crab her act by deliberately playing badly as we were expecting him to — and ultimately Kate gets the job with Hammerstein and gets a big, preposterous dance number called “There’s Danger in a Dance,” which begins with Kate singing and dancing with a chorus line of men in top hats and red-lined black capes. The original audiences for this film probably didn’t get the parallel, but today one can’t help but wonder, “Why is she dancing with a chorus line of Draculas?” And the night after watching the film The Delightful Rogue, whose big song is called “Gay Love,” Charles and I couldn’t help but be amused by the line “a gay romance” in the “Danger in a Dance” song — looking at the chorus boys Charles joked, “There’s probably a lot of Gay romance going on behind her!” The film segues into a blackface number with four minstrels doing a routine that starts as the spiritual “Deep River” and goes downhill from there (earlier there’d been a blackface number featuring Betty Grable called “Miss Lulu from Louisville” in which she was made up to be about the color of Lena Horne), and the number (choreographed by Fred Astaire’s assistant, Hermes Pan — he worked out the fabled Astaire-Rogers dances with the Master and it was he, not Rogers, who first had to do everything Astaire did only backwards and in high heels; alas, without Astaire to work with Pan was a pretty simple-minded choreographer and one aches for what Busby Berkeley could have done with Betty Grable and these songs) just sort of spirals on and gets more pretentious and less entertaining as it continues interminably.

Coney Island ends with Johnson and Kate together despite one final curve ball thrown by Rocco — Kate is about to marry Johnson when a man shows up from the bank Johnson has applied for a loan for his startup capital and “accidentally” lets slip to Kate that Johnson’s backing for his new club is dependent on her turning down Hammerstein’s offer and signing a long-term contract as Johnson’s star attraction, but later it’s revealed that the “banker” was an actor Rocco hired to keep Kate from marrying Johnson — and by this time both Charles and I were convinced Grable’s character would be better off without either of these creeps and I joked, “Girl, why don’t you dump them both and marry a jazz trumpeter?” (Later in 1943 Grable did exactly that in real life; she married Harry James.) Overall it’s a film that’s entertaining enough but could have been worlds better if Seaton and the journeyman director, Walter Lang, could have made the romantic rivalry less nasty and given Grable songs that showed her off better instead of being either too raucous or too pretentious to suit her. Not that that mattered; Coney Island was a mega-hit and Betty Grable renegotiated her 20th Century-Fox contract and became the highest-paid female entertainer in the world (replacing the previous record-holder, Bette Davis!); it also got remade as Wabash Avenue in 1950. Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne told a bizarre anecdote about the two films in his outro: he said that during the filming of Wabash Avenue Grable told Victor Mature (playing the George Montgomery role) that the story seemed vaguely familiar, like it was a remake of a movie she had dim memories of having seen — and Mature had to remind her that she’d not only seen but had been in the original version!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Delightful Rogue (RKO, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a 1929 movie called The Delightful Rogue I’d recently recorded from TCM, which I was interested in for a couple of reasons. First, the star was Rod La Rocque, and after having just seen him in what’s probably his most famous role — as the “bad” brother in the 1923 The Ten Commandments — I thought it would be interesting to watch him in a talkie. Also, Brad Kay’s Superbatone reissue of Jane Green’s “almost complete recordings” — there’s at least one take of every song this interesting and woefully short-lived (1897-1931) singer recorded, though including the existing alternate takes would have made this longer than a single CD — includes a song from this film, “Gay Love” (dig that title!) by Oscar Levant and Sidney Clare, which Green recorded as voice double for the film’s female lead, Rita La Roy. I’d seen The Delightful Rogue before in the 1980’s back when American Movie Classics was what TCM is now — the cable channel for hard-core old-movie fanatics like me — before it became “Debbie-ized” and turned into an outlet for dull, sodden “original” shows — and hadn’t been impressed by it. I’m still not, though at least A. Leslie Pearce’s direction is considerably more capable than the work of some early talkie directors: at least he doesn’t have … the actors … insert those … damnable … pauses … between hearing their cue lines and speaking their own (watching a film like Behind That Curtain will make you understand why so many late-1920’s critics actually thought silent films were more naturalistic than sound ones), and the voice dubbing is handled more artfully than it was in many later musicals: Rita La Roy’s speaking voice and Jane Green’s singing voice sound credible as the same person, which didn’t always happen later.

The weaknesses of The Delightful Rogue are the hackneyed nature of the plot (the writer was Wallace Smith, who five years later came up with the bizarrerie of The Captain Hates the Sea — he seems to have been the sort of writer who reveled in how weirdly he could mash up the standard clichés, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t) and the horrible appearance and voice of Rod La Rocque. For his role as “Lastro,” international outlaw, murderer, (alleged) pirate (though the ship he sails on, a steam yacht, doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform from which to commit piracy) and (it’s hinted) deposed South American dictator, La Rocque adopts a hideous makeup with so much goop in his hair it looks lacquered to his scalp, and to suggest Latino-ness he speaks in a ridiculous voice that’s almost impossible to describe — you really have to hear it to believe it, and wonder why La Rocque, Pearce or whoever else might have been involved ( credits Lynn Shores as a co-director but he was probably a producer instead) actually thought this absurd accent would be credible as a Latino, or for that matter as a human being. The plot takes place on the fictional South Seas island of Tapit (“played” by Hollywood’s go-to location for Polynesia, Catalina), where Lastro is determined to win cabaret singer Nydra (Rita La Roy) away from her rather wimpy boyfriend Harry Beall (Charles Byer — and he’s blankly pretty but there’s a reason you’ve never heard of him) even though the entire Tapitian army (which seems to consist of an overweight commander, an assistant officer and about 100 mixed-race enlisted men in comic-opera uniforms) is out to capture him and collect the reward on his head. (He makes a big to-do about the unflattering picture of him on his wanted poster.)

He escapes the Tapitian army absurdly easily — either the commander is an old friend of his, he bribed him, or both — and kidnaps both Nydra and Beall. Lastro promises to release Beall in the morning if he can spend one night with Nydra, only when he gets Nydra alone with him in his (ludicrously well-appointed, given that we’re supposed to be on a small ship) bedroom he announces that he’s not going to … well, you know, with her. Only she insists on remaining with him until dawn as a test of whether Beall truly loves her enough to stay with her even if she spends a hot, sexy night with the pirate … or at least makes it look like she has. Beall is predictably disappointed and has a jealous hissy-fit, but agrees to leave with her — only at the last minute she jumps out of the launch and somehow makes it back to Lastro’s ship, united with her dashing pirate at the end. The Delightful Rogue has its points of interest, including the wild “Barbary Café” where Nydra performs (it’s owned by a Jewish-stereotype comedian, Harry Semels, as “Hymie”), at which we see two men dancing together in each other’s arms just before Nydra comes out and gives forth with “Gay Love.” (Gay love, indeed!) Mostly, though, it’s just a slog through the old cliché mill, and the two similarly named stars (both “R La R”!) don’t have much chemistry — though given the horrible makeup and accent La Rocque was saddled with, one can’t really criticize his acting, just feel sympathy with him for what he was up against. As a silent with Rudolph Valentino as star, The Delightful Rogue just might have worked, but as it stands it really doesn’t have much to offer (and if Valentino had survived long enough to make talkies, his career might have ended anyway if his producers had given him a script like this!). When I looked it up on a recent review by someone calling him-, her- or itself “gerdeen-1” made fun of it in much the same way I would have: “If you’re one of those people who celebrate ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day,’ check out La Rocque’s effort. You’ve got to be better at it than he is.”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Toby Byron/Multiprises, Pioneer Artists, Sony Video Software Company, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently Charles and I screened Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, a 1987 documentary on the fabled jazz musician Charlie Parker, a.k.a. “Yardbird,” a.k.a. “Bird,” which I’d wanted to see as a follow-up to the 1996 film Improvisation because between them the two contain the only extant footage of Parker in action. Celebrating Bird contains the one film known to exist of Charlie Parker actually playing in real time — a DuMont network telecast of a program called Stage Entrance from February 24, 1952. He and his equally legendary — but quite a bit longer-lived — partner, trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, perform Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” (a bebop original based, like quite a lot of other bop tunes, on the chords of a standard — in this case, Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) with an all-white rhythm section: Dick Hyman on piano, Sandy Block on bass and Charlie Smith on drums. None of these were major bebop stars, and Hyman was actually more identified with ragtime and Dixieland than modern jazz, though he was a good enough musician to deliver a competent and professional piano solo. I can vividly remember the sense of occasion that surrounded this clip when I first saw it: in 1977, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco as part of their second annual program of “Jazz in the Movies.” The “Hot House” clip was shown on the very last night of the festival, and it wasn’t announced in advance because its existence hadn’t been known when the programs for the series were first printed — but as the night was about to begin an announcer came out and told us we were about to see something very special: a newly rediscovered film that was the only audio-visual record of Charlie Parker playing. For those of us who’d been too young to see him live (I was 1 ½ when Parker died) and had thought the experience of seeing Charlie Parker play was one we’d never have, it was a galvanic shock as we realized just what we were about to see.

The clip was a pretty ordinary piece of performance television for 1952 but at least it had the advantage of being a straight-on kinescope recording of a live TV broadcast, with Bird and Dizzy playing in real time. There seems to be some confusion as to where this show originated; I got the personnel from an online Dizzy Gillespie discography ( that gave the February 24, 1952 date and said the show was from New York City, but the credits on Celebrating Bird merely give the year and identify the locale as Newark, New Jersey. Celebrating Bird overall was a good if not definitive hour-long vest-pocket tribute to Parker as musician — and it’s woefully represented on, which lists only two of the people shown in the movie (Parker himself and Los Angeles-based alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, a contemporary and acolyte of Parker who got busted on drug charges, served a long prison sentence, was released in the early 1980’s and hailed as a living throwback to the original bebop era the way Magda Olivero was acclaimed as a living throwback to the verismo opera era when she was rediscovered in the 1970’s) on their “cast” list and doesn’t have a “soundtrack” list for the film at all. Producer Toby Byron (an old high-school acquaintance of mine who, ironically, first heard of Charlie Parker from yours truly — and another guy we went to school with, Richard Saylor, is among the people listed in the “thanks” section of the show) and director Gary Giddins (who also wrote the film, at least nominally based on a biography of Parker he had published, also called Celebrating Bird) did the best they could given the paucity of actual film of Parker available to them: just the DuMont “Hot House” and a silent clip of Parker blowing which they synchronized as best they could to Parker’s records — including, ironically, “Ballade,” a haunting ballad performance by Parker and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded by Norman Granz.

The irony is that “Ballade” and “Celebrity,” another performance by the same group (Parker, alto sax; Hank Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums) but without Hawkins, are the two songs Parker played on the 1950 Gjon Mili film Granz produced, but which was never released until 1996 and which eventually became part of the Improvisation DVD — but at the time Celebrating Bird was made the footage of Parker post-synchronizing to “Celebrity” and “Ballade” was still moldering in Granz’ vaults and thereby unavailable to Giddins and Byron. Besides Parker himself (in whatever film clips survive, a plethora of still photos and, at the end, a brief radio interview with jazz disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin promoting his latest record in 1950, “Leap Frog” b/w “Relaxin’ with Lee” from the Bird and Diz LP with Thelonious Monk, piano; Ray Brown, bass; and an overly loud and inappropriate Buddy Rich on drums, that shows Parker’s speaking voice to have been surprisingly literate and, as Charles noted, not particularly Black-sounding) and Morgan, the film also featured interviews with Parker’s first and fourth wives — Rebecca Davis and Chan Richardson, respectively — as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann (with whose Kansas City band Parker made his first known recordings, broadcast transcriptions from Wichita, Kansas in 1940[1], as well as his first commercial records in Dallas in 1941), jazz critic Leonard Feather, pianist Roy Porter (who played on the disastrous “Lover Man” recording session for Dial in Los Angeles in 1946 that took place on the day Parker had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental institution) and drummer Roy Haynes (who joined the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948, replacing the great Max Roach, and at least according to his own comment here took the job as a temporary replacement for Roach but Parker liked him so much he kept him on even when Roach was available again).

The film claims that Charlie Parker was actually born in Kansas City, Kansas, but his parents moved to the far larger city on the other side of the state line, Kansas City, Missouri, when he was still a boy. Parker’s dad, a Black vaudeville performer, had little or no interaction with him, and he was raised by his doting mother Addie (just as Louis Armstrong, who’d had the same towering effect on jazz in the 1920’s Parker had in the 1940’s, was raised by his beloved mom Mayann after his dad deserted their family and ultimately drank himself to death). Rebecca Parker Davis recalls that she and her family were houseguests of the Parkers, and when they moved out she continued to see Charlie even though her family thought she could do better, and they married and had a son, Leon (named after the great and tragically short-lived 1930’s tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, who died in a car crash in 1941), until Parker decided to try his luck in New York City in 1939 and asked Rebecca to divorce him so he could make the trip unencumbered by a wife and son. Parker washed out on that first New York stint — he ended up washing dishes in a club called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where the only fringe benefit was getting to hear Jimmy’s entertainer, the fabulous pianist Art Tatum — though he recalled years later that he’d jammed at Jimmy’s with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet (though on the Internet I found a post by Fleet’s son claiming that his dad and Parker played together many times, including paying gigs as well as jam sessions). As Parker explained it, he had been hearing a sound in his head that he hadn’t been able actually to play, and one night, while he and Fleet were playing Ray Noble’s pop song “Cherokee,” Parker realized that “by using the higher intervals of the chord as a melody line and backing them up with appropriately related changes, I could play this thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” Parker returned to Kansas City, briefly played with Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy — a decade-old and well-established band — but washed out quickly and was hired by the younger, hungrier McShann group.

Back in New York in 1942, he met Gillespie and the other young jazz radicals who were jamming at clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House and also working on a new form of jazz that would build on extended harmonies, faster tempi and sophisticated melody lines. Dizzy welcomed Parker as a brother and formed one of those intriguing partnerships that have advanced the history of jazz — a brilliant but flighty and irresponsible musician (Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker) teaming up with a more solid, grounded, responsible one (Frank Trumbauer, Stéphane Grappelli, Dizzy Gillespie) who got him to gigs, kept him clean and sober enough to play, and worked his contacts to get them both jobs. Celebrating Bird touches — inevitably — on Parker’s lifelong heroin addiction, a habit he supposedly got into when he was involved in a car accident in Kansas City in 1936 and which Rebecca found out about a year later when — without any explanation — he called her into their bedroom and shot up in front of her. (The accident also had a more positive effect on Parker’s life: he got an insurance settlement from it which he used to buy himself a new Selmer saxophone, the first quality instrument he’d ever been able to afford.) The film also mentions that largely because Parker used it, heroin became “cool” among the early beboppers (“bebop” became the genre name for the new jazz Parker, Gillespie and their comrades played), though — contrary to the accusations of some writers — there is no evidence that Parker himself ever encouraged any other musician to become a heroin user. Quite the contrary: a lot of musicians recall Parker warning them away from drug use, saying in essence, “Don’t screw up your life the way I’ve screwed up mine” — but, alas, all too many ended up doing as Parker did rather than as he said. Indeed, in the film Frank Morgan rather ruefully recalls that when he and his fellow L.A. musicians heard that Parker had died (in 1955, at age 34, in such a state of premature aging that the doctor who viewed his body and signed the death certificate put down his age as mid-50’s), they commemorated the occasion and expressed their grief by … scoring heroin and shooting up. Looking back on it, Morgan wonders why they didn’t respond to Bird’s death by getting themselves off the drug that had killed him — but that wasn’t the jazz mind-set of the time.

Celebrating Bird has its lacunae — Parker’s second and third wives are totally missing from the dramatis personae, so when Chan explains that she lost control of Parker’s funeral arrangements because “I didn’t have a wedding ring” we aren’t given any clue as to why — because when he started living with her he hadn’t bothered to divorce his third wife, Doris Sydnor, and so she was his legal widow and she won control of his estate. It was Doris who dictated that Parker’s body be sent home to Kansas City to be buried with his relatives — Parker had been so embittered about his origins he never wanted to go back there, alive or dead — and she gave him a generic funeral at Adam Clayton Powell’s church in Harlem with a non-jazz organist sending him out with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord.” Parker’s friend, the blind white pianist Lennie Tristano, had volunteered to play Parker’s music on the organ during the service, but he was turned down. Indeed, Parker’s funeral became such an infamous travesty in the jazz world that when John Coltrane was on his deathbed in 1967, he told both his wife and his record producer, Bob Thiele, he wanted Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler to perform at his funeral (which was done). Celebrating Bird is as good a movie as could be expected given that it was only an hour long and almost no film footage of Parker performing existed — there’s a bit of the reverse racism that’s become the mainstream view of jazz history in Giddins’ introduction (delivered by narrator Ted Ross) to the 1952 TV clip, saying that co-host Earl Wilson (a Broadway columnist and lifelong friend of Frank Sinatra until they broke bitterly over a 1974 book Wilson published about Sinatra) seemed patronizingly racist in his introduction. To me, Wilson just seemed nervous about presenting a racially mixed band — two Black musicians in the front line and three whites in the rhythm section — to a 1952 TV audience, so he took refuge in some stock remarks about the jazz world being colorblind (which it really wasn’t — not anywhere near as much as Wilson made it sound, anyway). The “Hot House” clip, complete with its introduction by Wilson and co-host Leonard Feather, is reason enough for any jazz fan to want this DVD.

[1] — Though a discography at lists an even earlier one, an amateur recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul” played by Parker without accompaniment in Kansas City in 1937.

Inspector Lewis:“Beyond Good and Evil” (BBC/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the next (and last) of this year’s three episodes of the Inspector Lewis mini-series from the BBC, aired on KPBS, and this was by far the best of the shows we’d seen: “Beyond Good and Evil,” which judging from the title was going to have something to do with Nietzsche. The central character this time was Graham Lawrie (Alec Newman) — the last name was pronounced “Lorry,” like the British word for “truck” — who 11 years previously was convicted of three brutal murders of police officers, who were entrapped by responding to emergency calls (in Britain the code is 999 instead of 911), whereupon their killer ambushed them and hit them in the back of the head with a special sort of hammer Lawrie used in his work. Only a scandal involving cross-contamination of DNA samples from the crime scenes, and the discovery in police files of a statement from an alibi witness for Lawrie for one of the killings leads an appeals court to vacate Lawrie’s conviction and set him free. Meanwhile, another police officer is killed using exactly the same M.O. on the night before Lawrie’s appeal is to be heard, and while he’s still in custody one of the series regulars, detective sergeant Lizzie Maddox (Angela Griffin), is assaulted in the boiler room at Oxford University after also having been lured there by an emergency call. The case threatens Inspector Robert Lewis’s (Kevin Whately) standing with the police force since he investigated it originally and is still convinced of Lawrie’s guilt. He’s convinced a copycat is committing the current killings in an attempt to exonerate him, while his former partner James Hathaway (the odd-looking but still hot Laurence Fox) is at least entertaining the possibility that both the 2001 killings and the new ones were committed by the same person and that Lawrie is indeed innocent.

The Nietzschean connection comes in through a professor who teaches a class on him at Oxford and who turns out to have been the Gay lover of the first cop killed back in 2001; and the star student in his Nietszchean discussion group, a cute young twink who wears a T-shirt reading “Amor Fati” (it literally means “the love of fate”  and Nietzsche scholar Friedrick Ulfers calls it “one of Nietzsche's most overt, and perhaps his best known, assertions of affirmation for life”), whom a middle-aged woman psychiatrist who’s been studying Lawrie since he was convicted and put in a mental hospital for the criminally insane suspects is Lawrie’s “beta,” a psychopath-in-training who essentially harnesses his own will to an “alpha” like Lawrie and lets him take him over (sort of like Leopold to Loeb in a real-life murder case inspired by Nietzsche — that was the one in which defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued in court that Nietzsche’s philosophy drove insane everyone who believed in it, starting with Nietzsche himself); indeed, Charles noted the parallels between this plot and Alfred Hitchcock’s Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired film Rope. It turns out, though, that the real “beta” is an unassuming-looking woman who works as a bookbinder at Oxford (and who made Lawrie a hand-bound copy of Beyond Good and Evil in which he concealed psychotropic medications he was supposed to be taking, but was instead bartering to his Black security guard, a would-be athlete who was on steroids) and for all the police knew was only the head of the citizens’ group seeking Lawrie’s exoneration. In fact she was dating him at the time of the 2001 murders and was actually a participant in them — she would make the 999 calls to lure the cop victims and he would kill them — and, of course, she committed the new murders herself to aid in his exoneration, then killed the newly freed Lawrie after he rejected her following his release. It was a legitimate surprise (a lot of British whodunits are considerably more obvious than this one!) and a neat capstone to a quite charming and well done mystery in that oddly decorous British style — though the Inspector Lewis stories are sufficiently of, as well as in, the present to include social media and cell phones (or “mobiles,” as the Brits call them — interesting that American and British English still generate these odd deviations of vocabulary!), stylistically they’re very much a part of the tradition of Agatha Christie and her imitators.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1923)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We bussed back to Charles’ place and spent the rest of the night running my tape of the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, which like most of Cecil B. DeMille’s films alternates between scenes of vivid power and scenes of utter stupidity. Charles said he was surprised to find that I’d been right all along when I noted that DeMille and his special-effects people parted the Red Sea more convincingly in this version than they did 33 years later (and in the heavily faded two-strip Technicolor, the Red Sea actually did look red), and also that since the Biblical Moses was 80 years old when he led the Israelites out of Egypt (and 120 when he died on the edge of the Promised Land), Theodore Roberts was actually more accurate casting for the part than Charlton Heston was in the remake. I in turn was amused not only at the visual “quotes” from this movie that have appeared in subsequent films (King Vidor stole the scene in which Leatrice Joy ascends a construction elevator to meet Richard Dix, her brother-in-law, for The Fountainhead, and Alfred Hitchcock used the death scene of Nita Naldi — clutching a curtain and pulling it down, ring by ring, as she falls — for the shower murder in Psycho), but also at the treatment of leprosy in the script (Naldi supposedly gives it to her adulterous lover, Rod la Rocque, who in turn fears he’s given it to his wife, Leatrice Joy, and then to his brother, Richard Dix), which is strikingly premonitory of the mainstream view of “HIV/AIDS” (well, you didn’t think I was going to write a whole journal entry without mentioning it at least once, did you?). Later we came to Alabama Street to find our roommate John P. watching a documentary on The Making of “Dr. Zhivago,” and I said, “That’s a terrible movie. It’s a great book, but they turned it into a terrible movie” — and Charles said, “You could say that about The Ten Commandments as well.” — 5/19/96


Charles and I got home and I got out the DVD of the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, a film that had come back to my consciousness in an odd way: on last Friday’s Jeopardy! program announcer Alex Trebek had said they were doing a category of questions about archaeology in honor of Saturday, October 18 being National Archaeology Day. I’d never heard of National Archaeology Day and I wondered how it would be promoted (“Today is National Archaeology Day — go dig something up!”), but Charles rooted around on the Internet and found a news story about how people digging in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara had just unearthed the giant set representing ancient Egypt that was built there for this 1923 film. Even though the “find” was only 91 years old and was built by Hollywood craftspeople, not ancient Egyptians, the people who uncovered it (based on some cryptic clues in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography) were saying the find was a good teaching opportunity for the importance of archaeology in general. The 1923 Ten Commandments was a movie I’d previously watched on a Paramount VHS videotape with the Red Sea sequence in a badly faded version of the original two-strip Technicolor and a soundtrack recorded on organ by the late, legendary theatre organist Gaylord Carter. The one we were watching last night was on the third disc of a boxed set devoted mainly to DeMille’s 1956 remake with Charlton Heston as Moses — DeMille told Heston he cast him because he thought Heston looked a lot like Michaelangelo’s statue of Moses (and almost a decade later Heston would play Michaelangelo on screen in The Agony and the Ecstasy!) — but which I bought mainly to get the 1923 version since I like it a lot better than the 1956 version anyway.

There are plenty of film directors whose creativity went into a stall when they reached middle age and no longer had the hunger of youth to push them, but DeMille is the only major one I can think of whose skills as a director actually got weaker as he aged. I think that’s mainly because he realized that he could make box-office mega-hits just by throwing lavish sets on the screen and peopling them with thousands of extras (back when “a cast of thousands” meant literally that; you couldn’t artificially create hordes of extras with CGI the way James Cameron did with Titanic and Ridley Scott with Gladiator) and didn’t need to direct his spectacles with any degree of artistry. Indeed, during his first decade or so as a director DeMille regularly complained that his little, “artistic” pictures were his only box-office flops! The Ten Commandments — the 1923 version (silent, of course!) — runs a shade over 2 hours and 15 minutes, of which the first hour is taken up by a stunning, lavishly produced but somewhat dull retelling of the story of Exodus (quite a lot of the explanatory titles come direct from the King James Bible and are literally quoted chapter-and-verse), though only a small slice of it — between the end of the ninth plague and the drowning of Pharoah Rameses’ army in the Red Sea (which I still think parted more believably here than in the 1956 remake — DeMille and his special-effects person, Roy Pomeroy, did it by making the Red Sea out of Jell-O, melting it under the hot camera lights and then running the film in reverse) and the Israelites’ worship, and Moses’ destruction, of the Golden Calf (considerably less anatomically correct and more Deco than in 1956) — makes it onto the screen. Moses is played by character actor Theodore Roberts, who looks considerably older than Charlton Heston in the remake — though as Charles pointed out the first time I showed him this film, the Biblical Moses is described as being 80 years old and therefore Roberts was closer casting to the book’s description of the character than Heston. Rameses is played by Charles de Rochefort, and it’s interesting in light of DeMille’s reputation that though he’s played as a vain asshole, he’s also given a moment of real sympathy when his son (Terrence “Pat” Moore) dies (as part of the 10th plague Moses has had God loose on the Egyptians: the deaths of all their first-borns) and he desperately — and fruitlessly — prays to the gods of Egypt to restore his son to life.

The mighty front of the Egyptian palace, including reproductions of the famous four statues of Rameses at Abu Simbel as well as a huge wall etched with giant depictions of the king on a chariot, is not only impressive to look at but visibly towers over the actors; just a few years later they would have done it with models and a process shot, but the process screen didn’t exist in 1923 (it would be invented in the next few years by German cinematographer Eugen Schuftan for Fritz Lang’s use in Die Nibelungen and especially Metropolis), and instead of building a small-scale palace front and station it behind the actors DeMille ordered a life-size one constructed that would loom over the poor Israelites who are being enslaved and worked to death by the Egyptians. The most interesting characterization in the first hour of this film is Estelle Taylor’s as Moses’ sister Miriam, who’s obviously being characterized as the “bad girl” to Moses’ good guy; though it’s their brother Aaron who orders the building of the Golden Calf, it’s Miriam who does the big dance in front of it and as a result is struck down with leprosy and develops lesions visibly on screen. (Roy Pomeroy developed a system combining colored makeup and colored filters on the lights — one combination would render the makeup invisible, one combination would make it visible, and by dissolving from one to the other Pomeroy could make his makeup either appear or disappear on screen; nine years later the same technique would be used to depict Fredric March’s on-screen transformations in the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) The first hour of The Ten Commandments is a bit ponderous and slow — which should have been a warning of what was going to happen once DeMille started making films set entirely in Biblical or historical times — but the second hour and a quarter, taking place in the 1923 present, is more clichéd but also better filmmaking. We dissolve from one to the other when a sequence showing the aftermath of the Golden Calf and its destruction (and Moses’ embittered smashing of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments at the foot of Mount Sinai — after the spectacular light show Pomeroy conceived to get him the Commandments in the first place; the words literally emerge from the mountain in what looks like a combination of fireworks and lava) dissolves to the widow Martha McTavish (Edythe Chapman) reading the Book of Exodus to her two sons, John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod LaRocque).

John is a good boy who believes in God, the Bible and the Ten Commandments; he’s also a carpenter (note the Biblical symbolism of that profession!). Dan is an unbeliever who couldn’t care less about the Ten Commandments and is willing to break any or all of them if he can achieve material success — which he does; within three years of being thrown out of his mom’s house Dan is the most successful building contractor in San Francisco (the city isn’t named in Jeanie Macpherson’s script but it’s obvious on screen — the cathedral the McTavishes are building is a replica of the famous one of St. Francis in North Beach and a crowd scene obviously takes place in Union Square). Dan and John also had a squabble over a homeless girl named Mary Leigh, whom John wanted to marry but Dan got instead because, as she pointed out, she finds Elinor Glyn much more interesting reading than that stuffy old Bible thing. (Elinor Glyn was a racy romance writer whose works were being successfully filmed by Paramount in the 1920’s; her most famous book, It, became more or less the basis for Clara Bow’s most successful film in 1927 — I say “more or less” because the book and the film had two different plots, though the book features in the film and Glyn wrote the stories for both.) Alas, Dan is not only ensuring the profitability of his latest venture, a big church, by skimping on the amount of cement in the concrete (and bribing the building inspector, played by Robert Edeson, to get away with it), he’s also romancing gold-digging vamp Sally Lung (Nita Naldi — who else?), a half-French, half-Chinese woman who escaped from the leper colony on the island of Molokai, Hawai’i, established herself in San Francisco and glommed onto rising young contractor Dan McTavish. Dan put John on this job as his foreman in hopes that John’s honest reputation would be an added protection against his getting caught, only Mary decides to visit John on the construction site, rides an elevator the 19 stories up there (in a scene that clearly influenced King Vidor when he shot a similarly vertiginous rendezvous between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal at the top of Cooper’s latest, uh, erection in The Fountainhead), then slips and nearly falls because the weak concrete gives way under her high-heeled foot. John tries to get the builder who’s working under him to stop work on the edifice because it’s clearly unsafe — though it’s not yet finished the walls are already cracking under the strain of the heavy automotive traffic on the block — and he ultimately orders the workers off the site and the unfinished building closed.

Alas, his security person admits Mrs. McTavish to the site — thinking John’s edict can’t possibly apply to his own mother — and so she’s in the building when the south wall collapses on top of her, she’s killed (though she’s left alive long enough to confess that she made a mistake with Dan, trying to get him to believe in God through fear instead of love — a bit of DeMille philosophy that carried over into the fascinating film The Godless Girl five years later, when the atheist played by Lina Basquette’s first glimmer of belief comes when she’s presented a vision of religion based on compassion and love instead of hatred and fear) and Dan’s corrupt practices are exposed. Dan grabs for a gun in his desk drawer and is about to shoot himself when the corrupt building inspector he bribed grabs the gun from his hand, saying he’s not going to be left holding the bag for the disaster by Dan’s untimely exit. Instead Dan decides to visit Sally Lung and ask her to return his presents so he can sell them and get the money to get himself out of trouble; she refuses, he assaults her and grabs the string of pearls he gave her, she says he’ll never be rid of her because she has leprosy and she’s given it to him, and he shoots her as she’s holding onto a curtain dividing her living room from her bedroom. Instead of letting us see her fall, DeMille shoots her death with her on one side of the curtain, whose rods pop open one by one from the weight of her body clutching the curtain as she falls dead. Though she was shot instead of stabbed, and she was in her bedroom instead of her shower, the parallel to Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho is obvious — it’s impossible to believe Hitchcock wasn’t thinking of this scene when he designed and storyboarded the one in Psycho! Now that he’s broken all the Ten Commandments, Dan first tries to infect his long-suffering wife Mary (who by now has realized she made a big mistake when she chose him over John!) with leprosy (Charles noted the similarity to the Clara Bow vehicle Call Her Savage from nine years later, which also featured a scene in which a pathological husband deliberately tries to infect his wife with a sinister disease), then attempts to flee to Mexico on a speedboat, Defiance (DeMille’s and Macpherson’s ham-handed symbolism strikes again!), only he crashes the boat on a rock in mid-ocean much the way Pharoah’s armies were drowned in the Red Sea back in the Biblical prologue (you remember).

The reviews in 1923 generally found the Biblical prologue more interesting than the modern-dress part of the movie (though the film was an enormous hit and Warner Bros. copied the combination of a dramatization of a Biblical story and a modern-dress parable illustrating it in Noah’s Ark six years later); the New York Times reported that at the juncture between the two stories the film went “from the sublime to the out-and-out movie” — but this time, at least, I found the modern-dress story, as dated as it is (no one, not even in 1923, dragged the Ten Commandments into everyday conversation as much as these people do), considerably more creatively directed and viscerally exciting. Watching DeMille’s silents, one can understand why in the early days he was considered a major artistic director as well as a box-office hero and why people like Stroheim, Eisenstein and Lang all proclaimed their admiration for DeMille and desire to emulate him. The Ten Commandments also shows DeMille’s mastery of the double game forced onto all Hollywood by the various moralists who were trying to censor movies and succeeded in 1934 when the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency forced the studios to put teeth into the Production Code: tantalize and titillate the audience with vividly staged depictions of sin, and then slam the sinners with horrible retribution (the Code called it “compensating moral values”) while the good characters get redeemed — in this film literally by Jesus Christ, to whom John and Mary pray for Mary’s leprosy to be cured, in a DeMillian “vision” of Christ and his apostles that looks like a screen test for The King of Kings, DeMille’s Jesus biopic and first all-Biblical film, four years later. The Ten Commandments remains a remarkable film by a director who’s underrated not only because his old-fashioned moralism has long since fallen out of fashion but also because he became so sloppy and slovenly in his later years — virtually nothing DeMille made after The Crusades is watchable because after that point he stopped pushing himself artistically and his slogan of “give the public what it wants” became an excuse for him to take the easy way out on each new project. — 10/19/14

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Divine Garbo (Turner Entertainment, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home from work shortly before 10 and asked if we could watch something relatively short, and as luck would have it I’d just recorded a 45-minute program from Turner Classic Movies called The Divine Garbo. This was a “clip show,” produced by Turner Entertainment in 1990 back when TNT (Turner Network Television), not TCM, was their main movie channel, and they showed the films with commercial interruptions (though I recorded some items off it anyway, carefully editing out the commercials as I went — notably the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, which I quite like even though the 1941 classic with Bogart and Huston trumps it big-time; my VHS tape of this remained my reference copy for this film until Warner Home Video reissued the 1941 version on DVD and put the 1931 version and the intervening reworking, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, in the package as bonus items) and occasionally interspersed them with vest-pocket documentaries like this one. The Divine Garbo was blessedly bereft of talking heads; it was just a chronological portrayal of Garbo’s career via clips from her films, and the only contemporary person involved was host Glenn Close, picked because at the time she was starring on Broadway in a stage musical version of Grand Hotel in which she played Garbo’s old role. The Divine Garbo actually showed her career, to paraphrase a line from Citizen Kane, before the beginning and after the end; it included clips from commercial movies she made for the Stockholm department store where she worked in the early 1920’s (for years the store sold copies of her employment record, including under the category “Reason for Leaving,” the foreshadowing words: “To enter the films”), including one called How Not to Dress in which she dresses so badly she looks like a singularly unconvincing drag queen. (Garbo would play at androgyny throughout her whole career, especially when sound came in and that deep, contralto voice became part of her screen persona.) The film also included clips from Garbo’s first feature film, a slapstick comedy called Luffar-Petter (the title literally means “Laughing Peter” but when it was released in the English-speaking world it was called Peter the Tramp, which suggests its star was doing a Chaplin knockoff), and her breakthrough role in Mauritz Stiller’s 1924 epic The Saga of Gösta Berling (a saga-like novel by Selma Lagerlöf that was remade in the 1980’s as a mini-series for Swedish TV). I’ve seen that one, but only in a 90-minute cut-down version — the original lasted half again as long and I believe Kino Lorber has a restored version available — and Garbo seems to be barely in the movie until the last half-hour, where she dominates. Garbo was 17 when Stiller discovered her and Stiller was in his mid-40’s; they were widely rumored to be lovers, and though Stiller was (mostly) Gay they very well might have been — at least two of Garbo’s later boyfriends, Gayelord Hauser and Cecil Beaton, were men who were otherwise Gay.

It also showed a clip from Garbo’s last European feature, Die freudlose Gasse (literally “The Joyless Street,” though once again the English-language releases gave it a different title, The Street of Sorrow), in which Garbo was second-billed to Asta Nielsen and the two played women forced by dire circumstances into prostitution. The clip we got was a Caligari-esque dream sequence — appropriately enough since Caligari himself (actor Werner Krauss) had a key supporting role — in which ghostly hands reach out for Our Heroine with a sinister purpose behind them. Then Garbo came to MGM as a sort of afterthought; Louis B. Mayer wanted Mauritz Stiller on his roster of directors but Stiller said he’d sign with MGM only if they took Garbo as well. “Tell her that in America we don’t like fat women,” Mayer told Stiller about Garbo — according to this documentary she’d already lost 20 pounds at Stiller’s behest to play Elizabeth Dohna in The Saga of Gösta Berling but Mayer wanted her to slim down even more, and MGM’s publicity department handled her like any other starlet, posing her with football players and the MGM lion. Garbo’s first two American films, The Torrent and The Temptress, were both based on novels by Vicente Blasco Ibañez (two of whose other books, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Blood and Sand, had elevated Rudolph Valentino to stardom — what a pity Valentino didn’t live long enough to make a film with Garbo!), and were both incredibly silly romantic melodramas that became enormous hits. Mauritz Stiller was originally assigned to direct The Temptress but was fired after just 10 days, and though his career at least temporarily recovered (once MGM dropped him, Paramount picked him up and assigned him Hotel Imperial with Pola Negri, and it was a hit), by 1928 he was dead and Garbo’s friend (and sometime Lesbian lover) Salka Viertel recalled Garbo going through his belongings in his Hollywood bungalow, since Stiller’s family had asked her to decide which of his things could be sold, given away or thrown out and which should be shipped back to them in Sweden, and fondling each item while reminiscing what she and Stiller had been doing when he acquired it — a scene reproduced in the film Queen Christina (1933), which Viertel wrote for Garbo, in which she feels every item in the room in which she’s just lost her (heterosexual) virginity to John Gilbert and says that in the future, in her memory, she will live a great deal in that room.

The documentary, written by David Ansen and directed and edited by Susan Walker, shows some quirky choices as well as the expected ones — including her silent Wild Orchids (1929), which MGM insisted she finish even though Stiller died during its making and she protested that she was so emotionally distraught if they continued the movie “you will have a dead thing on screen.” They also showed a brief clip from her last silent, The Kiss (1929) — though not one with her leading man, up-and-coming Lew Ayres — and clips from both the English and German versions of her first sound film, Anna Christie. (The English Anna Christie is actually a terrible movie; thrown by sound, Garbo overacts for the first and last time in her screen career; and George F. Marion from the original stage cast of Eugene O’Neill’s source play, playing her father, has an awful faux-“Swedish” accent that sounds even worse by comparison with Garbo’s real one. The German version, which Garbo liked better, featured Salka Viertel in the older-woman role Marie Dressler played — superbly[1] — in the English version and, judging from this clip, seemed more naturalistic and less “stagy.” The Divine Garbo also included quite a long excerpt from her 1931 film Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (though a lot of people who’ve written about this film invert the title to the more conventional “Rise and Fall”), which co-starred her with Clark Gable — they look horrendously mismatched together but this still looks like a film it would be worth seeing again — and clips from her 1932 film As You Desire Me, co-starring with Melvyn Douglas (first of their three films together) and Erich von Stroheim (whom she admired as both actor and director — when they made the movie he was still recovering from an injury suffered on his previous film, The Lost Squadron, and fearful that he would be replaced if he ever called in sick, his job was saved by Garbo, who told him if he didn’t feel up to working one day he should call her, and she would call the studio and say she was sick). Of course it also shoed excerpts from her legendary movies Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935 — a remake of a silent she’d made called Love as a follow-up to Flesh and the Devil, in which she was teamed with MGM’s “Great Lover,” John Gilbert), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939).

The show is ambiguous about why Garbo’s career fell so fast, to the point that after just one movie following Ninotchka — the abysmal Two-Faced Woman (1941), which has a marvelously romantic opening reel and the rest sucks — Garbo hung it up and never made a movie or appeared in public again. The problem with Garbo’s career is that in the 1930’s her popularity in the U.S. faded but MGM kept her under contract anyway because her films still made tons of money overseas, especially in Europe. Then World War II cut off the European market for American productions, and Two-Faced Woman was a failed attempt to remold Garbo into a figure of fun American audiences of 1941 would like again. Garbo’s career was also hurt by the death of MGM’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, in 1936; when she’d renewed her contract in 1935 she had specifically asked that either Thalberg or David O. Selznick produce all her films, but after 1936 Selznick was working independently and Thalberg was dead — and of the three films she made after Thalberg’s death (including the leaden spectacle Conquest from 1937, about Napoleon — played by Charles Boyer — and his Polish mistress Maria Walewska), only one, Ninotchka, was any good (and that was because its producer-director, Ernst Lubitsch, brought his celebrated “touch” to it and created a quality lacking in her other two post-Thalberg films). After Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered World War II, Louis B. Mayer called Garbo into his office and offered to keep her on salary for the duration of the war but not actually make any films with her. Garbo, whose professional ethic rebelled against taking money for work she wasn’t doing, said no and agreed to be released from her contract. She made one comeback try — in 1949, when independent producer Walter Wanger signed her for a version of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, to be shot on location in Italy with James Mason as her co-star — and she got as far as shooting makeup and costume tests (one of which is included here). Then she arrived in Italy, ready to work — only the financing wasn’t set and neither was the script, and appalled by the difference between MGM’s professionalism and the al fresco uncertainty of independent filmmaking, she walked. Charles noted that Garbo during her later years wasn’t the anti-social recluse of legend — there’s a still photo of her hanging out with the world’s elite on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, and she continued to see people, though any hint of what she was doing to the outside world (especially the press) and you were banished from her circle forever (as Cecil Beaton was when he published his diaries, including memoirs of their affair). The Divine Garbo offered a nice précis of her career and also included 1930’s cartoons spoofing her image; in one of them she has a run-in with Cary Grant (ah, Grant and Garbo together — another haunting cinematic might-have-been!) and in another she’s a cigarette girl, Harpo Marx gives her a hotfoot, and as the flames work down her shoe she first doesn’t react at all and then says a long, slow, languorous “Oooouuuucccchhhh.”

[1] — Dressler was the only member of the cast of Anna Christie who had extensive experience both on the stage and in silent films, and it showed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Beyond the Sea (Lions’ Gate, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was Beyond the Sea, the first in a box of seven items I’d just ordered from the Columbia House DVD Club (the others being the 1948 Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet; the 1929 Howard Hughes production Hell’s Angels; Manic, a film with Don Cheadle as a teacher in the juvenile ward of a mental institution — one I picked up because an commentator on The United States of Leland had said this was a better movie with Cheadle in a similar role; Traffic, a film I’d been curious about since it was made and wanted to see even more after I showed Charles The Wet Parade, which seemed to be the Traffic of its day in its attempt to do a multi-story film dealing with all the aspects of Prohibition; The United States of Leland itself; and The Woodsman, with Kevin Bacon as a convicted child molester who’s served his sentence and has to face the prejudices of the people in the small town in which he’s settled after release — I had fun with the idea of Columbia House’s computers deciding I’m a particular fan of Kevin Spacey and Don Cheadle because two of these films feature Spacey and three feature Cheadle). This is the controversial biopic of singer/actor Bobby Darin, starring, directed by and co-written by Kevin Spacey, of whom a lot of fun was made because he was already older than Darin was when he died. While we were watching it I couldn’t help but compare it to Ray, another recent musical biopic overlapping the same era (both Charles and Darin were major record sellers for Atlantic in the late 1950’s before both jumped to then-bigger labels, Charles to ABC-Paramount and Darin to Capitol), but whereas Ray followed the normal rules of the biopic — a linear script, a straightforward narrative style, a lead actor (Jamie Foxx) of the right age for the character in the era depicted, and the subject of the film providing most of the music himself (partly through old records and partly through special recordings he made expressly for the film just before his death) — Beyond the Sea broke them and managed to make the breakages work. The conceit of Beyond the Sea is that it stars Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin playing Bobby Darin in a biopic the singer is directing and starring in himself; aside from allowing Spacey to anticipate and pre-emptively answer the criticisms of his own role (a studio executive actually tells him he’s too old to be playing himself!), it also allows Spacey to stage some sequences as pure fantasy, include some surprisingly lavish (for 2004) production numbers (the cast list names 65 people credited just as “Dancer”).

When Charles and I watched the marvelous 1936 Abel Gance biopic of Beethoven, I commented that it wasn’t just a biopic: it was one artist of genius paying tribute to another. Certainly Kevin Spacey is no Abel Gance, and Bobby Darin was no Beethoven, but the two films share in common this aspect of homage; Spacey is less telling us Darin’s story than having fun with Darin’s myth and giving us a now-serious, now-playful insight into what Spacey likes about the man he’s playing. Though occasionally the cameras get too close to Spacey and the age difference between himself and Darin becomes all too apparent — never more so than in the scenes in which he’s first courting wife-to-be Sandra Dee and the visible difference between Spacey’s and Kate Bosworth’s ages makes this seem much more like a May-December romance than it really was (and paradoxically makes the objections of Dee’s mother Mary [Greta Scacchi] seem much more reasonable) — for the most part Spacey is simply marvelous as Darin. Maybe he is too old, but he’s got the manner and the attitude absolutely right — especially when he’s playing Darin performing — and even one of Spacey’s most controversial conceits, namely doing his own singing instead of using Darin’s records, comes off. There’s a bit of audible strain on some of the high notes, but the tone and timbre of the voice is absolutely right — enough so that a longtime fan of Darin’s, commenting on this film on, said he was convinced that it was Darin singing “Mack the Knife” on the film’s trailer. The story of the film is basically accurate as to the broad outlines of Darin’s life and is certainly true to his mythos — and if this film was a box-office disappointment it was probably more to do with the who-cares factor than anything else. As talented a performer as Darin was and as exciting a spectacle as he presented to the people who got to see him live (even though all too much of his act as shown here consists of doing overly bouncy, uptempo swing versions of songs like “Beyond the Sea” and “That’s All” that were originally written as ballads and, in the case of “That’s All,” far better performed by Nat “King” Cole as a ballad), he really wasn’t an epochal figure in American entertainment. The history of this country’s pop culture wouldn’t be materially different if Darin had never lived — or performed — whereas it certainly would be if Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan (to pick the three people Darin was clearly patterning himself after in the different phases of his career) had never lived or performed.

Certainly the most bizarre thing about Bobby Darin was the sheer speed with which he changed images and played around with his overall identity as a performer, from teenybopper rock-’n’-roller to Sinatra-esque crooner (the film vividly depicts Sinatra as Darin’s role model — one almost inevitable for an Italian-American male singer growing up in the 1950’s — and underscores his grim determination to become “bigger than Sinatra,” which needless to say he never quite did) to Dylan-style protest singer and born-again hippie and the way he was torn in the last two years of his life between his desire to reinvent himself as an au courant singer-songwriter and his knowledge that his stock-in-trade, both financially and expressively, was doing the Vegas-lounge act in tuxedo, toupee and clean-shaven face. Not long ago I screened a videotape I recorded from PBS of the last extant Bobby Darin concert on film — a show from 1970 that made his image uncertainty all too obvious: he does one of Sinatra’s most appalling schticks (a dreadfully unfunny comedy routine delivered while holding a teacup) and then performs the song, “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow.” The song was written by Hank Williams, Sr. and recorded both by him and by Johnny Cash — and it’s a testament to Darin’s skill and integrity as a performer that his version doesn’t suffer by comparison; for once a performer who had seemed through most of his life to be duplicating Sinatra’s image of “cool” without the emotional intensity of Sinatra at his best lets his guard down and delivers Williams’ song in simple, heartfelt tones that make the saga riveting and poignant. Beyond the Sea doesn’t quite come to grips with the Darin perplex — though it’s got some marvelously scornful lines (during one argument he and Sandra Dee have, she tells him he should vary his set list every night because, “After all, I don’t make the same movie every time” — to which he offers the withering comeback/putdown, “Sure you do”) — and the film suffers from omitting Sandra Dee’s victimization at the hands of a pedophile stepfather (the real reason she was scared to death of having sex with her new husband — Dodd Darin makes a great deal of this in his book about his parents and I was surprised it wasn’t mentioned in the film), but for the most part Beyond the Sea is a marvelously entertaining film, in at least one respect — the blatant, unashamed artificiality of its visual look (most of the “exteriors” are sets built inside soundstages) — borrowing from the 1920’s classics from directors like Murnau and Lang shot in the same location: the old UFA studios at Babelsberg, Germany. It’s a film that overcomes the factors that could have limited it — the artificiality (and the entire conceit of filming a movie that takes place entirely within the U.S.[1] in Germany, of all places!); Spacey’s age and less-than-ideal singing voice; a committee-made script (it began as a screenplay written by Lewis Colick for Warners in 1987 and passed through 17 years of development hell before it finally reached the screen — and though many writers got their hands on it in the meantime the Screen Writers’ Guild ruled that the only people who deserved writing credits were Colick for the original framework and Spacey for his additions to the script that finally got shot); a non-linear structure and such narrative conceits as making the child Bobby Cossotto, later Darin[2] (William Ullrich, who gets an “Introducing … ” credit) an on-screen character throughout the movie, talking to Spacey as the adult Darin and constantly urging him towards more honesty in the film-within-the-film — and managed to be quite entertaining, moving and convincing. — 6/11/05

I sat through the second half of Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin biopic, again. This time around Kevin Spacey’s age (he was about seven years older when he made the film than Darin had been when he died) bothered me more than it had before, and (perhaps because I wasn’t watching it from the beginning) so did the stylized devices like having Darin’s proposal to Sandra Dee become a production number with chorus line set to the title song, or having Darin as a boy (William Ullrich) and Darin as a man (Kevin Spacey) interact in the metafictional world of the old UFA Neubabelsberg studio in Germany where the actual film was shot and the events have been dramatized in connection with a film-within-a-film on Darin’s life. Still, I admired Spacey’s skill at impersonating Darin the performer (especially given that he did his own singing — he came a lot closer to capturing the real Darin than Joaquin Phoenix did with the real Johnny Cash, and his vocals were close enough that even some long-time Darin fans reported to that they’d been momentarily convinced that Darin’s own records were being used on the soundtrack) and his determination to make this more than just another routine musical biopic — even though I also found myself irritated at Darin’s insistence at taking some of the most beautiful, most sensitive ballad songs ever written (Charles Trenet’s “Beyond the Sea,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers,” and the Brandt-Haymes “That’s All,” the last sung at the proper slow tempo by Nat “King” Cole and June Christy in their Capitol recordings) and turning them into bouncy, uptempo swing numbers in his nightclub act. — 10/10/06


I ran the film Beyond the Sea because our friend Garry Hobbs had brought his own DVD of it — Charles and I had watched it eight years ago when the DVD first came out and I got it from Columbia House, and I liked it this time around as much as I had then. Beyond the Sea was a project that was in the works for almost two decades at various studios; it was a biopic of singer Bobby Darin, who became a major star but didn’t quite reach the legendary status of the people he was obviously imitating — Elvis Presley in the first third of his career, Frank Sinatra in the second third and Bob Dylan in the last third. That list of influences pretty much sums up the eclecticism of Darin’s art; he went from aspiring rock ’n’ roller (his first hit was the charming novelty song “Splish Splash,” which he co-wrote with the man who later became the disc jockey Murray the K) to Sinatra-style nightclub crooner before his experience campaigning for Robert Kennedy for President — and the trauma of his murder, which also unhinged Rosemary Clooney and other celebrities who had backed his candidacy — and his opposition to the Viet Nam War led him to write and record socially conscious material like “A Simple Song of Freedom” that turned his nightclub audience off without getting him any new fans among the hippies and politicos of the 1960’s. Darin was a sickly child (he had rheumatic fever and throughout his adult career had to have oxygen tanks backstage to keep up his energy for his shows) and he died young — indeed, Kevin Spacey, who directed and co-wrote this film as well as playing Darin, was older (45) when he made it than Darin was when he died (37). The film was controversial when it came out not only because of the age difference between the actor and his character (though Spacey is actually quite convincing in the role and only a few times does the camera get close enough to reveal his age) but because Spacey, Lewis Colick (who’d been attached to the project in the 1980’s — a lot of other writers had been on it since then but the Writers’ Guild of America judged that none of them had contributed enough to the final script to deserve screen credit) and the producers decided that instead of doing a traditional biopic, they’d use a more fantasy-like approach involving big production numbers and scenes in which the young Bobby Darin (William Ullrich) calls the older one on his B.S. I liked the film this time around pretty much as I had before, though the central conceits — the fantasy sequences and the idea that Darin is directing and writing a biopic in which he plays himself (“No one’s ever done that before,” says one member of Darin’s entourage, and an poster noted that people had played themselves in movies before, including Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story and Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back) — do get a bit arch at times.

The film was shot entirely in the Neubabelsberg Studios in Berlin, which had been built in the early 1920’s for the giant UFA company (many of the classic German silents, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, had been made there), had fallen into disrepair during the post-World War II era (unfortunately the site had ended up in East Berlin) but were restored and turned into a state-of-the-art facility after Germany was reunified in 1990. At times the marvelous studio effects Spacey and his crew were after look great — the Bronx neighborhood where Walden Robert Cassotto, a.k.a. Bobby Darin, grew up has the look of a 1920’s “street” film and actually comes off as more convincing than it would have if they’d filmed on location in a real urban neighborhood — and Spacey’s performance (he did all his own singing for the film and caught Darin’s style so convincingly some long-time Darin fans were sure he was using Darin’s actual records) is magnificent. He’s joined by Kate Bosworth as Darin’s (first) wife, Sandra Dee, though the terror Dee experienced on their wedding night is incomprehensible unless you know that she had regularly been sexually molested by her stepfather — indeed, the book Dream Lovers by their son Dodd Darin (on which the movie is nominally based) claims that her stepdad and Darin were the only people she ever had sex with in her life — an earlier draft of the screenplay had made Dee’s history as a molestation victim a major plot point, but the version that got filmed ignored it. Darin himself was a wildly eclectic performer with one annoying habit all too faithfully reproduced by Spacey in the film — he tended to take beautiful ballads like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and the Bob Haymes-Allan Brandt “That’s All” (the latter definitively recorded in ballad tempo by Nat “King” Cole) and speed them up into nightclub swingers — but I’d certainly like to re-see the 1970 film that’s the very last video of the real Darin performing; after a stupid, banal, Sinatra-esque “tea break” in which he tries to be a stand-up comic and tells excruciatingly unfunny jokes, Darin comes back with an extraordinary gut-wrenching version of Hank Williams’ song “I Heard the Lonesome Whistle Blow” that holds its own against the formidable competition from Williams and Johnny Cash! — 10/15/14

[1] — Actually, it doesn’t; some key scenes, including the courtship of Darin and Dee, take place in Italy where the two are on location playing the second leads (with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida as the stars) in the film Come September. [M.G.C., 10/11/06]

[2] — The explanation for Darin’s stage name given here: he was passing a Mandarin Chinese restaurant and saw their neon sign, in which the letters “M-A-N” had burned out and only “D-A-R-I-N” was left. That was one of about two or three explanations Dodd Darin mentioned in his book.